Thursday, September 23, 2010

Message from the Stone Age

Matthew Miller, The Two Percent Solution, 2003:

A serious plan would be do launch a new program that we could think of as "Title I for Teachers." The federal government would raise salaries for every teacher in poor schools in America by 50 percent. But this offer would be conditioned on two fundamental reforms. First the teachers unions would have to let us raise the top half of performers in the teacher corps another 50 percent on average. Second, the unions would have to streamline the dismissal process for poor-performing teachers to a fair, swift, four-to-six-month period.

Whether or not that would have been a good deal is open to question, but it is pretty clear how this idea has evolved over the subsequent years -- the offer of substantial extra money has gone away. Ironically, Michelle Rhee might have gotten closest to this deal, but was hindered by her own deficiencies as a leader and administrator, an overemphasis on speed of implementatoin, by the fact that you can't simply substitute private for public funding in this case, and by the historical weakness and corruption in the Washington Teacher's Union.

Regardless, I bring this up to frame the revisionist analyses of the Nashville merit pay experiment:

The second school of thought, and the one that interests serious people, is the proposition that rethinking teacher pay can help us reshape the profession to make it more attractive to talented candidates, more adept at using specialization, more rewarding for accomplished professionals, and a better fit for the twenty-first century labor force. And, whether or not bonuses linked to test scores had any effect on measured achievement tells me absolutely nothing on this score.

OK, I can buy that, as long as we're clear about how teaching is going to become more "attractive" and "rewarding." There are lots of things other than money that make a given teaching job more appealing -- professional autonomy, collaboration, support from administration. But these aren't rewards, everyone needs them. They are, in my book, preconditions to success.

If you're talking about rewarding teachers, and making the job more enticing to extrinsically motivated people, you're going to have to put some cash on the barrelhead, and you're going to have to lay the political groundwork for paying teachers more. I don't see that happening today, and if, in the end, we're not talking about raising salaries, we aren't really going to improve the status or quality of teachers.

Also, if the market becomes more efficient -- there is a more direct relationship between the quality of teachers and their cost -- this will have a negative effect on schools that are exploiting current inefficiencies. That is, schools which are dependent on young teachers who are under-compensated in the current system. If every school becomes more expensive to run as it becomes more successful, we'll need a different financing system, to be sure.

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